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The road from Earthsea

26 October, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The other day, I was thinking about how I ended up being a writer of fiction. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for about as long as I can remember, but it’s only in the last few years that it’s become, essentially, my career. It could have been very different. Though I’ve always loved reading, and have always been moved and excited by books, there’s no immutable law that makes readers want to be writers. But I did end up wanting to write, and one trilogy of stories in particular was responsible for it.

As a child and a teenager, I read a whole range of science-fiction and fantasy literature: everything by Tolkien, the first Dune novel, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (as it was), John Wyndham’s classic British SF, Narnia (surprisingly clever and brilliant when read as an adult), as well as lots of lesser-known titles which mostly deserve to remain obscure. All of these kindled an interest in fantastic worlds and story-telling, though none allowed it to bloom quite as much as the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin.

These books are loved by thousands. A quick and unscientific look at Amazon uncovers over four hundred reviews for the first book in the original trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea, with more glowing five-star scores than all the other ratings combined. This, on the face of it, is odd. The Earthsea books have always been marketed as ‘high fantasy’, which must lead many readers to expect all sorts of beast-slaying, sword-swishing, and epic-scale action. Earthsea has none of this. Its central characters are laconic, gentle and restrained. Magic runs through all the stories, though on the whole it’s a very subtle business. The more powerful a wizard becomes in Earthsea, the less he uses his gifts, mindful of the need to maintain equilibrium. Le Guin’s metaphysics is influenced by Taoism, a spiritual discipline placing emphasis on harmony with the structure of nature, and Western academic psychology, with its rich treatment of the unconscious mind and its symbols. The resulting combination is a deeply satisfying, nuanced vision of how a magical world might work.

Other aspects of Earthsea are also beautifully realised. The stories all take place across a collection of small islands, dominated by the sea that surrounds them. Le Guin writes in an elegant, spare style, using a few choice words and phrases to conjure up a wholly convincing ecosystem. Her world has a mixture of cultures, climates, political systems and social mores that are every bit as complex and rich as those of reality. Interestingly, the dominant race on Earthsea is non-white, and the most barbarous islands in the archipelago are inhabited by blond, pale-skinned warmongers. For the Fantasy genre, dominated as it is by Anglo-Saxon types in a quasi-European setting, this detail is refreshing. In fact, everything in Earthsea is refreshing. There are dragons, wizards, warriors and haunted tombs, though in Le Guin’s hands each of these stock elements takes on a new and surprising life.

For me, as for many others, the first three books, written between 1968 and 1972, are the most successful. Le Guin went on to write several more in the 1990s, but evidently felt that her earlier vision was deficient and changed some of the central ideas. I can understand why she did this, but the resultant stories were, as far as I’m concerned, far less likeable. Nonetheless, this doesn’t detract from the achievement of the earlier books, which between them constitute a beautiful, strange and moving whole. In particular, The Farthest Shore, which won the US National Book Award in 1973, is a poignant and sophisticated tale that matches up to any novel I’ve read since, whether children’s or adults’, fantasy or non-fantasy.

Of course, writing action-packed tales set in the Warhammer world is somewhat different to this, and I’ve never tried to emulate Le Guin’s style or goals in what I’ve done. I don’t think she’d like Warhammer at all, and I fear she’d be horrified to learn that her work has helped produce blood-soaked tales of treachery and corruption in Averheim. Nonetheless, she remains an inspiration to me as a writer. No one else can summon up such a rich imaginative vista with such simple, restrained language, and no one else has produced quite such a coherent, sympathetic and wholly original fantasy world.

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